There’s an African proverb that says, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”
If you have parents or relatives who are already gone, it may feel like it’s too late to document their stories. I felt that way for a long time too, but now I know: It’s NOT too late.
The Family Historian
I’ve always considered myself a family historian ever since I got a one-year diary for Christmas when I was 10 years old. Not long after that I got a Brownie box camera and started taking pictures.
When I got married and had kids, I was the one who took most of the photos of our family. I also wrote faithfully in my journal about our lives.
At family reunions I was the crazy Aunt who would say, “Okay, everyone, let’s line up and get a family picture!” They might have grumbled about it now and then, but they dutifully lined up and we’d get a family picture.
Back in those early days I never would have believed that one day I would feel like such a failure as a family historian.
The Boxes Of Family Photos
As our parents got older, I was the one who inherited all the boxes of photos from both sides of the family. My goal was to scan all the pictures and eventually create a photo book for each family represented by the boxes, but life was busy with an online business and my family, so I kept putting it off.
Every once in a while I would drag a box out from under the bed, open the lid, look inside, feel overwhelmed, close the lid, and push it back under the bed thinking, “I’ll get to it someday.”
Fast forward a few years, and three of our parents had either passed away earlier than expected or had a stroke or gotten dementia.
I’ll never forget when I realized my mother-in-law was slipping mentally and I thought, “Oh no, I’d better get the family history!” So I asked her to come out to my office and sat her down in a chair in front of a computer where I had scans of her childhood photos.
I showed her one of the photos and said, “Granny, tell me about this picture.”
She looked at the picture and kind of pursed her lips and then looked down at her hands in her lap and then looked back up and said, “I don’t remember.”
I felt a moment of panic so I showed her another picture and said, “Granny, what about this one? Do you remember this one?”
Same thing. She looked at it and hesitated and then said, “I don’t remember.”
After several tries I knew the truth. It was too late.
I Felt Like a Failure
I felt like such a failure as a family historian. I had all those years where I could have asked our parents questions. They were vibrant people and we often had lively conversations. I could’ve asked them anything about their life growing up—about their parents andr grandparents—and I could have learned so much…but I didn’t do it.
At first it didn’t occur to me to ask about family history. When you’re young and raising your kids, you don’t think about that. Later on, when it did occur to me, I tried asking a few questions but I didn’t really know what to ask.
I was also very busy with my family and work and I felt overwhelmed by the pile boxes. Since I wasn’t sure how to deal with them, I kept putting it off and putting it off until it was too late.
I felt like I had not only failed myself, but I’d also failed my kids and my grandkids and future generations because they would never get to hear those stories.
My Mother’s Stories
Only my mom was left and I vowed I would not make the same mistake with her. So even though I was just as busy as before, I made the time to interview her. I also figured out how to organize the photos. It took me awhile but I kept at it until I figured out a system that worked.
My mom and I had such a sweet time together as we sat and talked about her life. She answered my questions and shared her stories and I got them all documented. We were able to create three books: One about her life growing up, another about her marrying my dad and one about us as a family before she passed, and that was the sweetest time I’ve ever had with her.
When I finished my mom’s photo books, I felt like such a Family History Hero!
But I also learned something else. I learned that I was wrong when I thought I was a failure.
You are not a failure if you’ve waited too long and somebody you love passes away before you can document their family stories. Yes, you may have missed some great stories, but here’s the truth:
You grew up with your parents and grandparents so you know a lot about them—where they lived, what they were like, and many of the stories they were fond of telling. You may not know everything, but you know a lot more than your kids know and way more than your grandkids know.
Even ONE story that shows somebody’s personality or work ethic or their sense of humor is far better than just a name and a date on a tombstone.
So don’t give up. Tell the stories you DO know and you will be a Family History Hero for your family!
7-Day Unlock The Boxes Challenge Coming Soon!
Right after New Year’s Day I’ll be sending registration information for the Unlock The Boxes Challenge that begins on January 8. We’ll work together to get a box of photos organized, documented, and scanned in one week. It’s going to be a lot of fun!
And just so you know, I have a followup class called Unlock The Stories that’ll come after the Unlock The Boxes 7-Day Challenge and it’ll definitely help you with how to capture family stories—even of family members who are no longer living.
And if you’re not on my email list be sure to sign up so you won’t miss any of the details about my Unlock The Boxes Challenge for 2020.
Let 2020 be your year to get it done!